Edward Snowden, the whistleblower branded a traitor for revealing the US National Security Agency’s global espionage operations, may be offered amnesty in America, one of the country’s top spy chiefs has said.
But Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force assessing the implications of the leaks, said such a deal would be possible only if Snowden returned the 1.5 million stolen documents and files thought to be in his possession.
Mr Ledgett said in a TV interview: “I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured … [but] my personal view is yes, it’s worth having a conversation about.”
However, White House spokesman Jay Carney last night dismissed the idea of amnesty for the former NSA contractor even if he were to turn over the documents in his possession.
Mr Carney said: “Our position has not changed on that matter at all. Mr Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information and he faces felony charges here in the United States. He should be returned to the United States as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process in our system.”
Snowden, 30, remains in Moscow, after being granted temporary asylum by the Russian government in August.
General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, remains opposed to any prospect of the former computer systems administrator coming home without having to face charges. “People have to be held accountable for their actions,” he said.
Any amnesty would have to be approved by the US State Department. Its spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said Mr Ledgett was expressing “a personal view” to CBS in his interview, and not that of his employers.
Snowden’s revelations earlier this year, contained in 200,000 documents leaked to newspapers and published on both sides of the Atlantic, were hugely embarrassing for the US government.
One classified paper confirmed that agents listened in to the phone conversations of 35 world leaders, among them German chancellor Angela Merkel, which sparked outrage in Berlin.
Other documents revealed the extent of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programmes, including the collection of records of millions of phone calls and online activity, often with the co-operation of internet service providers, social media sites and the operators of mobile phone networks.
Britain’s spying operations were also placed under the spotlight. The Snowden papers revealed close technical co-operation between GCHQ, the UK government’s listening post at Cheltenham, and European espionage agencies, and the high levels of information sharing with the US intelligence services.
A number of US officials are leaving their posts in the wake of the scandal, including Gen Alexander, who leaves in the spring, and NSA deputy director John Inglis, who had been tipped for higher office.
Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, who was Gen Alexander’s predecessor, said he would not grant Snowden an amnesty if it was his decision, but thought he had opened up a national debate about the government collection of information about its citizens.
“Snowden was important. He accelerated a debate, he misshaped the debate, but the debate was coming,” he said.
John Miller, who formerly worked for the Director of National Intelligence, and is the senior CBS news correspondent who conducted the Ledgett interview, said the uncertainty over what was contained in the rest of Snowden’s documents would probably cloud any discussions over a possible amnesty.
Mr Miller said: “If his agenda was to expose things that were a risk to Americans’ privacy, why did he take the documents which basically tell the enemy what we know and what we don’t know, since that has nothing do with it? Then the second question is what did he intend to do with the rest of them?”
But Mr Miller added that, whatever Snowden’s fate, the controversy had caused the US government to look at its internal security procedures regarding the storage of sensitive information. The government had, Mr Miller said, been forced to spend $26 million (about £16m) revamping computer systems.